Watchers by Dean Koontz


  A quick tail wag: Yes.

  “You can’t sense it any more?”

  One bark: No.

  “Do you think . . . it’s dead?”

  DON’T KNOW.

  “Or maybe this sixth sense of yours doesn’t work when you’re sick—or debilitated like you are now.”

  MAYBE.

  Gathering up the lettered tiles and sorting them into the tubes, Travis thought for a minute. Bad thoughts. Unnerving thoughts. They had an alarm system around the property, yes, but to some extent they were depending on Einstein for an early warning. Travis should have felt comfortable with the precautions he had taken and with his own abilities, as a former Delta Force man, to exterminate The Outsider. But he was tormented by the feeling that he had overlooked a hole in their defenses and that, come the crisis, he would need Einstein’s full powers and strength to help him deal with the unexpected.

  “You’re going to have to get well as fast as you can,” he told the retriever. “You’re going to have to try to eat even when you have no real appetite. You’re going to have to sleep as much as you can, give your body a chance to knit up, and don’t spend half the night at the windows, worrying.”

  CHICKEN SOUP.

  Laughing, Travis said, “Might as well try that, too.”

  A BOILERMAKER KILLS GERMS DEAD.

  “Where’d you get that idea?”

  BOOK. WHAT’S BOILERMAKER?

  Travis said, “A shot of whiskey dropped into a glass of beer.” Einstein considered that for a moment.

  KILL GERMS BUT BECOME ALCOHOLIC.

  Travis laughed and ruffled Einstein’s coat. “You’re a regular comedian, fur face.”

  MAYBE I SHOULD PLAY VEGAS.

  “I bet you could.”

  HEADLINER.

  “You certainly would be.”

  ME AND PIA ZADORA.

  He hugged the dog, and they sat in the pantry laughing, each in his own way.

  In spite of the joking, Travis knew that Einstein was deeply troubled by the loss of his ability to sense The Outsider. The jokes were a defensive mechanism, a way to hold off fear.

  That afternoon, exhausted from their short walk around the house, Einstein slept while Nora painted feverishly in her studio. Travis sat by a front window, staring out at the woods, repeatedly going over their defenses in his mind, looking for a hole.

  On Sunday, December 12, Jim Keene came out to their place in the afternoon and stayed for dinner. He examined Einstein and was pleased with the dog’s improvement.

  “Seems slow to us,” Nora said fretfully.

  “I told you, it’ll take time,” Jim said.

  He made a couple of changes in Einstein’s medication and left new bottles of pills.

  Einstein had fun demonstrating his page-turning machine and his letter-dispensing device in the pantry. He graciously accepted praise for his ability to hold a pencil in his teeth and use it to operate the television and the videotape recorder without bothering Nora and Travis for help.

  Nora was at first surprised that the veterinarian looked less sad-eyed and sorrowful than she remembered. But she decided his face was the same; the only thing that had changed was her perception of him. Now that she knew him better, now that he was a friend of the first rank, she saw not only the glum features nature had given him but the kindness and humor beneath his somber surface.

  Over dinner, Jim said, “I’ve been doing a little research into tattooing— to see if maybe I can remove the numbers in his ear.”

  Einstein had been lying on the floor nearby, listening to their conversation. He got to his feet, wobbled a moment, then hurried to the kitchen table and jumped into one of the empty chairs. He sat very erect and stared at Jim expectantly.

  “Well,” the vet said, putting down a forkful of curried chicken that he’d lifted halfway to his mouth, “most but not all tattoos can be eradicated. If I know what sort of ink was used and by what method it was embedded under the skin, I might be able to erase it.”

  “That would be terrific,” Nora said. “Then even if they found us and tried to take Einstein back, they couldn’t prove he’s the dog they lost.”

  “There’d still be traces of the tattoo that would show up under close inspection,” Travis said. “Under a magnifying glass.”

  Einstein looked from Travis to Jim Keene as if to say, Yeah, what about that?

  “Most labs just tag research animals,” Jim said. “Of those that tattoo, there’re a couple of different standard inks used. I might be able to remove it and leave no trace except a natural-looking mottling of the flesh. Microscopic examination wouldn’t reveal traces of the ink, not a hint of the numbers. It’s a small tattoo, after all, which makes the job easier. I’m still researching techniques, but in a few weeks we might try it—if Einstein doesn’t mind some discomfort.”

  The retriever left the table and padded into the pantry. They could hear the pumping of the letter-dispensing pedals.

  Nora went to see what message Einstein was composing.

  DON’T WANT TO BE BRANDED. AM NOT A COW.

  His desire to be free of the tattoo went deeper than Nora had thought. He wanted the mark removed in order to escape identification by the people at the lab. But evidently he also hated carrying those three numbers in his ear because they marked him as mere property, a condition that was an affront to his dignity and a violation of his rights as an intelligent creature.

  FREEDOM.

  “Yes,” Nora said respectfully, putting a hand on his head, “I do understand. You are a . . . a person, and a person with”—this was the first time she had thought of this aspect of the situation—“a soul.”

  Was it blasphemous to think Einstein had a soul? No. She did not think blasphemy entered into it. Man had made the dog; however, if there was a God, He obviously approved of Einstein—not least of all because Einstein’s ability to differentiate right from wrong, his ability to love, his courage, and his selflessness made him closer to the image of God than were many human beings who walked the earth.

  “Freedom,” she said. “If you’ve got a soul—and I know you do—then you were born with free will and the right to self-determination. The number in your ear is an insult, and we’ll get rid of it.”

  After dinner, Einstein clearly wanted to monitor—and participate in— the conversation, but he ran out of energy and slept by the fire.

  Over a short brandy and coffee, Jim Keene listened as Travis outlined their defenses against The Outsider. Encouraged to find holes in their preparations, the vet could think of nothing except the vulnerability of their power supply. “If the thing was smart enough to bring down the line that runs in from the main highway, it could plunge you into darkness in the middle of the night and render your alarm useless. And without power those tricky mechanisms in the barn wouldn’t slam the door behind the beast or release the nitrous oxide.”

  Nora and Travis took him downstairs, into the half-basement under the rear of the house, to show him the emergency generator. It was powered by a forty-gallon tank of gasoline buried in the yard, and it would restore electricity to the house and barn and alarm system after only a ten-second delay following the loss of the main supply.

  “As far as I can see,” Jim said, “you’ve thought of everything.”

  “I think we have, too,” Nora said.

  But Travis scowled. “I wonder . . .”

  On Wednesday, December 22, they drove into Carmel. Leaving Einstein with Jim Keene, they spent the day buying Christmas gifts, decorations for the house, ornaments for a tree, and the tree itself.

  With the threat of The Outsider moving inexorably closer to them, it seemed almost frivolous to make plans for the holiday. But Travis said, “Life is short. You never know how much time you’ve got left, so you can’t let Christmas slide by without celebrating, no matter what. Besides, my Christmases haven’t been so terrific these last few years. I intend to make up for that.”

  “Aunt Violet didn’t believe in making
an event of Christmas. She didn’t believe in exchanging gifts or putting up a tree.”

  “She didn’t believe in life,” Travis said. “And that’s just one more reason to do this Christmas up right. It’ll be your first good one, as well as Einstein’s first.”

  Starting next year, Nora thought, there’ll be a baby in the house with which to share Christmas, and won’t that be a hoot!

  Aside from suffering a little mild morning sickness and having put on a couple of pounds, she’d not yet shown any signs of pregnancy. Her belly was still flat, and Dr. Weingold said that, considering her body type, she had a chance of being one of those women whose abdomen underwent only moderate distension. She hoped she was lucky in that regard because, after the birth, getting back into shape would be a lot easier. Of course, the baby was not due for six months yet, which gave her plenty of time to get as big as a walrus.

  Returning from Carmel in the pickup—the back of which was filled with packages and a perfectly formed Christmas tree—Einstein slept half on Nora’s lap. He was worn out from his busy day with Jim and Pooka. They got home less than an hour before dark. Einstein led the way toward the house—

  —but suddenly stopped and looked around curiously. He sniffed the chilly air, then moved across the yard, nose to the ground, as if tracking a scent.

  Heading toward the back door with her arms full of packages, Nora did not at first see anything unusual in the dog’s behavior, but she noticed that Travis had halted and was staring hard at Einstein. She said, “What is it?”

  “Wait a second.”

  Einstein crossed the yard to the edge of the woods on the south side. He stood rigid, head thrust forward, then shook himself and moved on along the perimeter of the forest. He stopped repeatedly, standing motionless each time, and in a couple of minutes he came all the way around to the north.

  When the retriever returned to them, Travis said, “Something?” Einstein wagged his tail briefly and barked once: Yes and no.

  Inside, in the pantry, the retriever laid out a message.

  FELT SOMETHING.

  “What?” Travis asked.

  DON’T KNOW.

  “The Outsider?”

  MAYBE.

  “Close?”

  DON’T KNOW.

  “Are you getting your sixth sense back?” Nora asked.

  DON’T KNOW. JUST FELT.

  “Felt what?” Travis asked.

  The dog composed an answer only after considerable deliberation.

  BIG DARKNESS.

  “You felt a big darkness?”

  Yes.

  “What’s that mean?” Nora asked uneasily.

  CAN’T EXPLAIN BETTER. JUST FELT IT.

  Nora looked at Travis and saw a concern in his eyes that probably mirrored the expression in her own.

  A big darkness was out there somewhere, and it was coming.

  3

  Christmas was joyous and fine.

  In the morning, sitting around the light-bedecked tree, drinking milk and eating homemade cookies, they opened presents. As a joke, the first gift that Nora gave Travis was a box of underwear. He gave her a bright orange and yellow muumuu obviously sized for a three-hundred-pound woman: “For March, when you’ll be too big for anything else. Of course, by May you’ll have outgrown it.” They exchanged serious gifts, also—jewelry and sweaters and books.

  But Nora, like Travis, felt the day belonged to Einstein more than to anyone else. She gave him the portrait on which she had been working all month, and the retriever seemed stunned and flattered and delighted that she had seen fit to immortalize him in paint. He got three new Mickey Mouse videotapes, a pair of fancy metal food and water bowls with his name engraved on them to replace the plastic dishes he had been using, his own small battery-powered clock that he could take with him to any room in the house (he was showing an increasing interest in time), and several other presents, but he was repeatedly drawn to the portrait, which they propped against the wall for his inspection. Later, when they hung it above the living-room fireplace, Einstein stood on the hearth and peered up at the picture, pleased and proud.

  Like any kid, Einstein perversely took almost as much pleasure in playing with empty boxes, crumpled wrapping paper, and ribbons as he did with the gifts themselves. And one of his favorite things was a joke gift: a red Santa cap with a white pom-pom on the tip, which was held on his head by an elastic strap. Nora put it on him just for fun. When he saw himself in a mirror, he was so taken with his appearance that he objected when, a few minutes later, she tried to take the cap off him. He kept it on most of the day.

  Jim Keene and Pooka arrived in the early afternoon, and Einstein herded them straight into the living room to look at his portrait above the mantel. For an hour, watched over by Jim and Travis, the two dogs played together in the backyard. That activity, having been preceded by the excitement of the morning’s gift-giving, left Einstein in need of a nap, so they returned to the house, where Jim and Travis helped Nora prepare Christmas dinner.

  After his nap, Einstein tried to interest Pooka in Mickey Mouse cartoons, but Nora saw that he met with only limited success. Pooka’s attention span didn’t even last long enough for Donald or Goofy or Pluto to get Mickey into trouble. In respect of his companion’s lower IQ, and apparently not bored with such company, Einstein turned the television off and engaged in strictly doggy activities: some light wrestling in the den and a lot of lying around, nose to nose, silently communing with each other about canine concerns.

  By early evening, the house was filled with the aromas of turkey, baked corn, yams, and other goodies. Christmas music played. And in spite of the interior shutters that had been bolted over the windows when the early-winter night had fallen, in spite of the guns near at hand, in spite of the demonic presence of The Outsider that always lurked in the back of her mind, Nora had never been happier.

  During dinner, they talked about the baby, and Jim asked if they had given any thought to names. Einstein, eating in the corner with Pooka, was instantly intrigued by the idea of participating in the naming of their first-born. He dashed immediately to the pantry to spell out his suggestion.

  Nora left the table to see what name the dog thought suitable.

  MICKEY.

  “Absolutely not!” she said. “We’re not naming my baby after a cartoon mouse.”

  DONALD.

  “Nor a duck.”

  PLUTO.

  “Pluto? Get serious, fur face.”

  GOOFY.

  Nora firmly restrained him from pushing the letter-dispensing pedals any more, gathered up the used tiles and put them away, turned off the pantry light, and went back to the table. “You may think it’s hilarious,” she told Travis and Jim, who were choking with laughter, “but he’s serious!”

  After dinner, sitting around the tree in the living room, they talked about many things, including Jim’s intention of getting another dog. “Pooka needs to have another of his kind,” the vet said. “He’s almost a year and a half old now, and I’m of the belief that human companionship isn’t enough for them after they’re well past the puppy stage. They get lonely like we do. And since I’m going to get him a companion, I might as well get a female purebred Lab and maybe wind up with some nice puppies to sell later. So he’s going to have not only a friend but a mate.”

  Nora had not noticed that Einstein was any more interested in that part of the conversation than in any other. However, after Jim and Pooka had gone home, Travis found a message in the pantry and called Nora over to have a look at it.

  MATE. A COMPANION, PARTNER, ONE OF A PAIR.

  The retriever had been waiting for them to notice the carefully arranged tiles. Now he appeared behind them and regarded them quizzically.

  Nora said, “Do you think you’d like a mate?”

  Einstein slipped between them, into the pantry, disarranged the tiles, and made a reply.

  IT’S WORTH THINKING ABOUT.

  “But, listen, fur face,” Travis
said, “you’re one of a kind. There’s no other dog like you, with your IQ.”

  The retriever considered that point but was not dissuaded.

  LIFE IS MORE THAN INTELLECT.

  “True enough,” Travis said. “But I think this needs a lot of consideration.”

  LIFE IS FEELINGS.

  “All right,” Nora said. “We’ll think about it.”

  LIFE IS MATE. SHARING.

  “We promise to think about it and then discuss it with you some more,” Travis said. “Now it’s getting late.”

  Einstein quickly made one more message.

  BABY MICKEY?

  “Absolutely not!” Nora said.

  That night, in bed, after she and Travis made love, Nora said, “I’ll bet he is lonely.”

  “Jim Keene?”

  “Well, yes, I bet he’s lonely, too. He’s such a nice man, and he’d make someone a great husband. But women are just as choosy about looks as men are, don’t you think? They don’t go for husbands with hound-dog faces. They marry the good-looking ones who half the time treat them like dirt. But I didn’t mean Jim. I meant Einstein. He must get lonely now and then.”

  “We’re with him all the time.”

  “No, we’re really not. I paint, and you do things in which poor Einstein doesn’t get included. And if you do go back to real estate eventually, there’ll be a lot of time when Einstein’s without anyone.”

  “He has his books. He loves books.”

  “Maybe books aren’t enough,” she said.

  They were silent for so long that she thought Travis had fallen asleep. Then he said, “If Einstein mated and produced puppies, what would they be like?”

  “You mean—would they be as smart as he is?”

  “I wonder . . . Seems to me there’s three possibilities. First, his intelligence isn’t inheritable, so his puppies would just be ordinary puppies. Second, it is inheritable, but the genes of his mate would dilute the intelligence, so the puppies would be smart but not as smart as their father; and each succeeding generation would get dimmer, duller, until eventually his great-great-great-grandpups would just be ordinary dogs.”

  “What’s the third possibility?”

  “Intelligence, being a survival trait, might be genetically dominant, very dominant.”

  “In which case his puppies would be as smart as he is.”

  “And their puppies after them, on and on, until in time you’d have a colony of intelligent golden retrievers, thousands of them all over the world.”

  They were silent again.

  Finally she said, “Wow.”

  Travis said, “He’s right.”

  “What?”

  “It is something worth thinking about.”

 
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